Freelancers in conflict zones still waiting for fair treatment from the industry

by Rachel Sanders

The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 622 journalists have been killed as a result of their jobs over the past ten years — nearly twice as many as the previous decade. What’s more, nearly 200 journalists are currently in prison worldwide.

And conflict zone journalists have harrowing stories to back up the numbers. Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist who spent nearly two years in prison in Egypt after being arrested in 2013, says working conditions for journalists in conflict zones are worse than he’s ever seen them.

“Hotspot areas have never been this dangerous,” Fahmy told Story Board via Skype last week.

“In the past it used to make a difference when you wore the flak jacket — a signature that said we were press — to protect ourselves. But now it actually makes you a target.”

He said things have changed for journalists since the Arab Spring began in 2010.

“More journalists are being targeted by groups and governments because they’ve realized how journalism can actually topple regimes,” he said.

Fahmy was released from prison in September 2015. He hasn’t yet started working as a journalist again. He’s focusing his energy currently on the Fahmy Foundation, the organization he founded to provide financial assistance to unjustly imprisoned journalists.

“When you’re in prison, whether you’re a freelancer, whether you’re staff, if you are a prisoner of conscience and you’re in that cell you need all the support you can get,” he said.

“He asked to borrow my flak jacket but I couldn’t give it to him”

When it comes to support, however, freelance journalists are especially vulnerable compared to staff journalists. They lack employer supports such as equipment, safety training, regular salaries, and security personnel.

Fahmy has worked as a freelancer himself at times and he speaks highly of his freelance colleagues.

“I do believe that some of the best work that has been coming out of the Middle East is from dedicated, hardworking freelancers who are trying to build a name for themselves,” he said.

One of those freelancers was Steven Sotloff, an American journalist who was abducted and executed by extremists in Syria in 2014. Before taking his final trip to Syria, Sotloff visited Fahmy at his home in Egypt.

“He had done a good job researching the logistics and he was talking to me about all the contacts he had. He wanted advice and we just talked about it. And he asked to borrow my flak jacket but I couldn’t give it to him,” said Fahmy.

“As a freelancer it’s hard to afford your own gear. But my gear belonged to CNN, that’s why I couldn’t give it to him.”

Fahmy learned of Sotloff’s death while he was in prison in Egypt.

“It was devastating to see what happened to him. He was just one example of someone who really wanted to give a voice to the voiceless,” he said.

Fahmy believes that media outlets should be taking more responsibility for the journalists who provide them with stories – whether they are on staff or not.

“If a freelancer has invested time with a network and has been a pivotal source of information for many months then the network should be able to provide a sense of security and insurance. If not through a staff contract then at least that sort of extracurricular support,” he said.

“Because times have changed now. It has become an unprecedented era of breach of human rights and press freedoms in the world.”

“We’re always more vulnerable as freelancers”

The changing times have led to profound changes within the industry. American freelance journalist Anna Therese Day has been based in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. She said that media organizations began to pull their staff out of conflict zones and rely on freelancers as the situation became more dangerous. By 2012, she said, 80% of the reporting coming out of Syria was by freelance journalists.

“If this is the new normal then the industry absolutely has an obligation to catch up and ensure that we have at least some of the cushions that their staffers have had for decades,” Day told Story Board from New York this week.

“We’re always more vulnerable as freelancers. But at this point we’ve accepted that we’re vulnerable and that the industry hasn’t caught up,” she said.

The increasing reliance on freelancers for conflict zone reporting – and the lack of support these freelancers are given by media organizations – motivated Day and some colleagues to create the Frontline Freelance Register in 2013.

The FFR works with organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Rory Peck Trust and Reporters Without Borders to advocate for and provide supports to freelancers in conflict zones.

Day said the FFR is the only organization with a mandate to speak to media organizations on behalf of freelancers.

“While we provide all sorts of perks for our members and work hard to partner with these more established organizations to provide psychological support or flak jackets and gear, I think our more important role is the big picture negotiation with the industry,” said Day.

“Delayed payment is unprofessional”

Media organizations have begun to acknowledge the need for better support for freelance correspondents. In February of 2015, a coalition of media companies and journalism organizations endorsed the Freelance Journalist Safety Principles as a set of standards to protect freelancers.

Although a large number of major media organizations have signed onto the guidelines, Day said freelancers are still frustrated.

“On the one hand we’re delighted to have so many signatories, because we want to create a sustainable culture of safety moving forward as this landscape continues to change,” she said.

But she said concrete action has been slow to follow.

“They signed this over a year ago and we have yet to see exactly who has implemented what. And for us as freelancers it is very frustrating.”

The most important issue for freelancers in the field, said Day, is money. Fair rates and prompt payment are vital to a freelancer’s safety. The ability to pay for gear, fixers, safe accommodation and transportation is dependent on a steady cash flow.

“The most exhausting part of my job is chasing paycheques and demanding professional treatment from clients when they’re clearly satisfied by my stories,” she said.

“Delayed payment is unprofessional. The refusal to pay expenses in advance is unprofessional. These things are not only unprofessional and unethical but they’re illegal in other contracted industries. And they’re also really dangerous for us,” said Day.

Despite the risks, Day and her colleagues are driven to continue reporting from the world’s most dangerous places.

“We’re working on some of the most dramatic stories on earth. And that is exhausting in itself,” she said.

“But we’re doing it because we love this job. For me these stories are the most important thing on earth.”

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Fahmy, who spoke to Story Board from Egypt where he returned last month to visit his sick father. He said that although his father is the primary reason for his trip, he’s also sending a message by returning to the country that imprisoned him.

“I’m not scared off,” he said. “I’m free to do whatever I want.”

“I’m not going to let my experience take away from what I love to do.”


Posted on March 23, 2016 at 10:06 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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